A HIGH TIMES reader discovers his birthright as the grandson of one of the Israeli scientists who discovered THC in 1964. Plus: An exclusive interview with Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the ‘head’ scientist in charge of that project.
By Omer Friedman
I was born in 1984 in Santa Clara, CA—to Israeli immigrants—and lived in Silicon Valley most of my life. When I was a child, I’d make yearly pilgrimages to visit my extended family back in Israel, and on these trips my mother would take me to visit her father—my grandfather—at the laboratory where he worked before he died. Habib Edery had immigrated to Israel from Argentina in the early 1950s, shortly after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, and worked in a lab as a pharmacologist doing all kinds of experiments for the government. He had a particular interest in psychopharmacology (the study of drugs that affect the brain), specifically substances that come from nature. Inside the labs, I would see all sorts of monkeys that my grandfather was conducting experiments on. It wasn’t until I grew older that I started to understand the “higher” purpose of some of these experiments.
When I turned 18, I was living in the US and, though living abroad provided an exemption from mandatory service in the Israeli military, I decided to volunteer anyway. I moved to Israel, leaving my friends and family behind, and was assigned in November 2002 to an airborne infantry unit. Throughout my service, friends of mine from the US would come and visit, and I’d occasionally take them for dinner at my grandmother’s house. On one of these occasions, in July 2004, I was eating dinner at her house with two of my friends when the conversation drifted to the topic of my grandfather and his research. Having previously been informed that my grandfather used to “experiment with marijuana” (based on the little I knew about his research), my friends decided to find out more and began peppering my grandmother with questions. Slightly embarrassed to be discussing weed with Grandma, and seeing that this conversation would clearly carry on with or without me, I seized the opportunity to excuse myself and go to the bathroom. As I re-entered the room a few minutes later, I caught the last part of my grandmother’s sentence: “...and Omer’s grandfather discovered THC.” I was in shock. I couldn’t believe my ears. After calming down a bit, I managed to ask a few questions of my own. As it turns out, my grandfather was part of a team of researchers that discovered tetrahydrocannabinol—the active chemical that makes marijuana such a special herb. They were the first to break down the plant and isolate its different molecules, which were then tested on monkeys.
I’d heard before that THC was discovered in Israel and knew my grandfather had done some work in the field, but I’d never made the connection. That night, a little skeptical but eager to learn, I looked around on the Internet but was disappointed to find almost nothing on my grandfather. What I did find out was that a man named Dr. Raphael Mechoulam claimed to have discovered THC. I asked my grandmother about him, and she explained that he was the chemist in charge of the experiment and the molecule separation, but that he’d needed a pharmacologist—my grandfather, Dr. Habib Edery—to do the actual testing of the individual molecules.
For the next few weeks, I never missed an opportunity to remind my friends of my newly discovered birthright. One friend, who was enrolled in a class at the University of California at Berkeley that covered neurochemistry and psychopharmacology, told me that his class had just studied the discovery and isolation of THC, which he described as a very significant event in psychopharmacology. He related that my grandfather’s research had been published in the journal Science, in a seminal article called “Chemical Basis of Hashish Activity.” He even sent me a copy.
After reading the highly technical description of the experiment and about the reactions of the monkeys—but barely managing to understand any of it—the thought dawned on me that my grandmother might have some of my grandfather’s old research notes stashed away. Sure enough, she had all of his old papers stored in a box in the attic, mostly written in illegible handwriting. Flipping through the contents, I came across lots of his work, mainly experiments having to do with things found in nature, like snake venom, for example. All the while, my grandmother was telling me stories of how my grandfather would return from work on some days with a big jar of marijuana and how all of his friends would kid him about “bringing work home with him,” which he always laughed off. Every furlough I had from the army, I would make it a point to stop at my grandmother’s and take some time to go through and read more about the experiments. After enough rummaging around, I eventually found a few original printouts of “Chemical Basis of Hashish Activity.”